Despite a slight increase since 2016, the public’s low level of trust in the mainstream media is of deep concern for the future of journalism.
Nearly half of people surveyed listed inaccuracies, bias and “fake news” as factors in their low confidence. A general lack of credibility and the perception that reporting is based on opinions was also cited for the loss of trust. But the Gallup poll did offer a glimmer of hope. Nearly 70% of all respondents said they felt trust could be restored somehow.
Would the return of ombudsmen improve public trust in the mainstream media? If so, what changes in the traditional ombudsman role would make its use even more effective? Eight former ombudsmen weigh in with their thoughts on the current state of journalism and the role of ombudsmen in the era of online journalism.
These interviews were conducted in 2020 for a master’s project for the University of Missouri.
Role of an ombudsman
News ombudsmen have been around since the late ’60s, first at daily papers in Louisville, then spreading to nearly 50 newspapers by 1980. Today, only a couple remain. How do they work and what is their value? Eight former ombudsmen reeducate us.
“The ombudsman was thought to be an independent, autonomous person, on a level with the editor-in-chief of the paper’s organizational level, but not reporting to anyone in the newspaper,” said Mark Prendergast, who from 2009 to 2012 was the ombudsman at Stars and Stripes.
Clark Hoyt, public editor at The New York Times from 2007 to 2010 said he “was working for the public, but as the job developed, I realized I was often explaining to the public the values of journalism and the values of that institution.”
Elizabeth Jensen, ombudswoman for National Public Radio from 2015 to 2019, said her role was “to gather the facts. To talk to the people involved. You’re representing the public. You’re bringing accountability and transparency.”
Richard Chacón, ombudsman at The Boston Globe from 2005 to 2006, elaborated on his role, saying that “part of the responsibilities was to produce a regular summary of readers’ comments and questions and distribute them to the management of the paper. Then every other Sunday, write an op-ed column in the Boston Sunday Globe, on issues that the ombudsman felt was worth investigating and explaining, or in some cases, critiquing the Globe, and how they handled certain situations. Rather than doing it every other week, I did it every week and, rather than just distribute it to the Globe management, I did it to the entire staff. I also started the first sort of online presence for the ombudsman.”
Chacón’s routine mirrored the work of Margaret Sullivan, who was public editor at The New York Times from 2012 to 2016. “I wrote frequently on a daily blog, not every day, but often several times a week, and then I would also write every other week in the print newspaper, on a Sunday,” Sullivan said. “I mostly did blog posts. I was active on Twitter. I made it more digital.”
Total independence was often cited by the ombudsmen.
“The only reasons I could be fired were if I did no work or if I violated the newspaper’s written ethics guidelines,” said Hoyt about his term at the Times.
Sullivan said that at the Times, “I reported directly to Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher. I did not report through the newsroom, which was I think a smart way that they set it up, that you were going to be essentially criticizing or keeping the newsroom accountable, so you shouldn’t be reporting up through the editor.”
That independence was considered critical to any successful effort. At The Boston Globe, “Only the publisher has the control to read the drafts, draft columns and/or to spike the columns,” Chacón said.
At NPR, Jensen said, “I report to the CEO. The publisher never once interfered. And if he did interfere, I would say something.”
Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman for The Washington Post from 2009 to 2012, still marvels at the memory of his hiring.
“I remember getting a contract, and it was one page long. And my wife, who is an attorney, looked at it. I remember her saying, ‘Well who can fire you?’ We couldn’t figure out who could fire me because I had no boss,” Alexander said. “Literally, I reported to no one. It’s extraordinary! And they were true to their word. They never interfered with anything.”
While independence is essential for performing the job of an ombudsman, it is equally important to receive strong support from the publisher and editors.
“The publisher was completely hands-off in terms of the content, but very encouraging,” Sullivan said. “He wanted me to be tough. He knew that was what the job was about. He wanted to be able to say, look, we’ve got this tough person. If I wrote a particularly critical column that he knew the newsroom was not happy with, very often that would be the day he would stop down and say, you know, that was a good one.”
Jamie Gold, public editor at the Los Angeles Times from 2001 to 2011, also said she saw support from management.
“If my gut told me something was wrong, the editors would back me up and so it was just gratifying to feel as if I could help the LA Times live up to what it should do, despite the fact that a few reporters and editors would be defensive and want to shove something under the rug,” she said.
Chacón replayed one tense moment when he published an article critical of Richard Gilman, the Globe’s publisher, because Gilman had not revealed that he and the Globe owner were part owners in the Boston Red Sox.
“I really upset my publisher because I publicly criticized him,” Chacón said.
“The publisher could have spiked my columns and he didn’t. He saw the columns before they got published, and he was not happy, but he understood.”
Several ombudsmen did document pushback from newsroom reporters and editors, including Chacón, who appeared to get the least cooperation.
“There were people in the paper who kind of saw the ombudsman kind of like the internal affairs cop, and treated me that way,” he said. “The challenge for me at the time was being the ombudsman when Marty Baron was editor of The Boston Globe, who was probably, deservedly, the most respected news editor in the country. I had long talks with Marty, because he had a pretty stormy relationship with the previous ombudsman. I didn’t want a repeat of that. I don’t think that he ever felt like he really needed an ombudsman.”
Prendergast from Stars and Stripes also experienced a strained relationship with his editors.
“The two most senior editors while I was there had come directly from professional newsrooms, the Chicago Tribune and The Associated Press,” he said. “I think their view was, ‘We’re editors, we’re in charge here, we don’t need somebody looking over our shoulder second guessing us.’ It was a pretty tense relationship from the outset, and it only got worse.”
At The New York Times, it was less contentious but still defensive.
“The New York Times is a very esteemed institution,” Sullivan said. “There’s a desire not to really admit wrongdoing. There’s a reason for that too, which is a very good reason, because The Times gets so much criticism from every side. So, the result has been they have a tendency to defend themselves and circle the wagons, because when they do admit wrongdoing, the world blows up.
But, she said, everybody always cooperated with the public editor.
“I mean, they kind of had to. If they didn’t, I could write something that said, I tried to look into this, but the National Editor declined comment. That would have been scandalous, because it was very much the culture that you did have to respond,” she said.
While there would be some newsroom tension, there were also many in newsrooms who would use the ombudsman as an avenue to raise journalistic or ethical concerns.
“Some of my greatest sources during my time as ombudsman were the journalists at The Globe. They may think, ‘Journalistically something doesn’t seem right to me here,’” Chacón said.
At The New York Times, Sullivan said that she would “sometimes get complaints or tips from inside, and people would say, ‘I see this going on and I think it’s really bad, and I wish you’d look into it.’ I would even get anonymous phone calls from inside the building.”
But Alexander said that at The Washington Post, he was sometimes wary about whether the complaint was being fueled by an ulterior motive.
“You have to be careful because the Post is a very competitive place and sometimes people try to screw people,” he said. “But by and large, I found at the Post that when I was tipped off to problems, it was because reporters, or in some cases editors, cared so deeply about the paper.”
Chacón agreed. “What’s the motive here? I would sometimes have to ask those people, you know, why is this bothering you?”
Sometimes there is quiet support, Hoyt said. “I’ll never forget a situation where I was involved in something that was quite tense in the newsroom, and I happened to pass the desk of a very senior editor who was sitting there, who very quietly said to me, ‘Don’t back down.’”
While ombudsmen navigated the dramatic ups and downs of newsroom emotions, Chacón said the public response was much more steadily positive. “When they come to the ombudsman’s office with their question or complaint, people can be remarkably grateful and gracious with how they and when they get a response.”
Jensen said that people tend to “appreciate the transparency and the accountability that is at the heart of the role. It’s a public editor. The role is to represent the public and to act as a proxy for the public.”
But one challenge expressed by all ombudsmen was the sheer volume of public feedback.
“We would get hundreds of emails a week” at The New York Times, Sullivan said, “from readers wanting to complain, or saying they tried to get a correction, and they couldn’t get it, and this was their last recourse.”
Alexander reported a similar experience at the Post.
“I really did try to listen to readers, and readers — not all of them, but a hell of a lot more than you would suspect — are very sophisticated readers,” he said. “These are people that know the issues, often angry but often very thoughtful. When I wrote an explanatory column, there were two reactions: One, you’re sucking up to the paper because you’re not really ripping them. But the overwhelming reaction was from people saying, ‘Thanks, I had no idea!’ And why should they? It’s a great mystery to them.”
The Twitter factor
Each ombudsman had a strong opinion about social media, its ability to communicate between the public and news organizations and whether it offers an adequate substitute for an in-house ombudsman.
“Twitter is not a public editor,” said Jensen from NPR. “You can find anyone to say anything you want on Twitter,” but an ombudsman goes beyond public commenting and actually investigates.
Prendergast from Stars and Stripes agreed. “If the reporters and editors are not responding to those comments, in either a direct or a transparent way, then it’s just noise,” he said. “That’s where the ombudsman should be very proactive.”
Clark and Sullivan, both previous ombudsmen at The New York Times, argued that social media comments don’t provide a deeper understanding of what Hoyt called the “ambiguities and gray areas.”
“It’s one thing to criticize, it’s another thing to actually investigate,” Sullivan said. “That is not something that happens on Twitter.”
Nevertheless, in 2017, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. eliminated the public editor position. Hoyt disagreed with the decision and any “analysis that says that because there is social media now, and so many voices that are criticizing media, you don’t need this (ombudsman) role within the organization.”
There is a difference between critics voicing concern on social media and the official role of an ombudsman, Hoyt argued. The ombudsman “has the ability to address an issue with the people in the organization, to get answers to questions, and then make an independent judgment.”
Jamie Gold, of the Los Angeles Times, said, “It doesn’t matter how much criticism you get, it’s whether the institution responds to it that matters.”
Prendergast summed up the current thoughts of publishers on ombudsmen in three points.
“One, we have a budgetary crisis, we’re laying people off all over the place. We’re devoting resources to a person who basically sits there and tells us and the public everything we’re doing is wrong. We could use that money to hire one or two reporters or line editors or what have you.
“Second, mainstream journalism is under fire, under pressure. Having somebody sniping at us from a protected perch in-house is really not a wise thing to do at this time.
“And third, with the rise of social media, people have ample opportunity to express publicly, and in a way that the editors will see, their displeasure over something that was covered, that was not covered, or how it was covered.”
The need for ombudsmen
Most ombudsmen believe that the rise in criticism on social media makes the need for ombudsmen even more relevant now than ever before.
“The presence of someone of a neutral party, who is going to hold your feet to the fire, will make a reporter think, ‘I need to revisit that story,’” Gold said. “A lot of reporters and editors just ignore comments from readers.”
Jack Lessenberry, ombudsman for The (Toledo, Ohio) Blade from 1999 to 2018, said that ombudsmen are critical to helping the public understand journalism.
“The industry needs to step up and explain what journalism is and how it works,” he said. “People need to know what news is, people need to know what news values are. Ombudsmen are very essential in keeping that goal. They can’t afford not to have that function in some form. You have to have public trust.”
Comments from the other ombudsmen mirror his views.
“We’re willing to scrutinize ourselves with the same kind of energy that we scrutinize outsiders,” NPR’s Jensen said. “A public editor can sort of wade through the whole debate, look at what’s valid, what’s not. They’re inside the building, so they can actually go and get answers. There’s an expectation that the newsroom at some level will cooperate with them to give them answers.”
The Post’s Alexander added, “They have said, ‘Well, in the age of social media, we have so many people who are critics.’ That is true, but nothing replaces the ability of an ombudsman or a public editor to go to somebody’s desk and say, ‘I’m here. I’m essentially from Internal Affairs. I’m going to ask you some very uncomfortable questions. I’m going to act as a reporter.’ That is something that the outside world of critics can’t do.”
Hoyt said the rush of the 24/7 news cycle inevitably leads to errors that need to be addressed.
“To hold journalists accountable on those occasions when for one reason or another, human error, whatever, we fall short of our aspirations. That role done well makes a difference,” he said.
Chacón expressed the same political concern found in researcher Tien-Tsung Lee’s 2010 examination of why the public does not trust the media.
“The role of the ombudsman and the public editor is increasingly important today, because of the polarization, the divide, the fragmentation of news, and that it’s not just the news anymore that’s just informing the society,” he said. “Having that transparency and ability to explain, I think goes a long way towards reaffirming the integrity of the news organization.”
The ombudsmen interviewed largely agreed that the role would now have to be more nimble about publishing and a lot more active on social media.
“We would have to be much more nimble, much more productive, if that’s possible,” Alexander said. “My predecessor did a blog, but not very often. I did it maybe twice as often as she did. But still I didn’t do it often enough.”
Hoyt reported a similar experience at the New York Times.
“I did some blogging, but not a lot,” he said. “The volume of that would have to increase. A presence on social media would be necessary. The ombudsman probably has to be faster in the reporting, looking into a situation, and the reaching of judgments. Although, I would be very careful about that. Letting speed take over from careful probing and reaching smart judgments.”
Chacón suggested a regular podcast would be valuable.
“There are all sorts of potential that a public editor, today or tomorrow, can really reach audiences in bigger and more meaningful ways than they have before, beyond just the column every other week,” he said. “There are all kinds of engagement opportunities, and in public, too. To meet with communities across the country to talk about the role of public editor, and the importance of the integrity of the news.”
Restoring trust and credibility
Reestablishing the presence of ombudsmen in newsrooms is not a sentimental wish for those interviewed. It is rooted in the belief that it would help restore trust and credibility for journalistic organizations, and also help shield news organizations from political attacks.
The same value was expressed in a survey conducted 20 years ago by researchers Kenneth Starck and Julie Eisele, where editors and ombudsmen agreed the ombudsman process increases fairness and accuracy.
“Journalism is in a crisis,” Jensen said. “You have (had) the top leader of the country every day casting aspersions on the credibility of the journalists who are doing the work essentially of the public.”
“The mainstream media are under fire,” Hoyt said. “It’s been growing, the degree of hostility, the degree of pushback. This is an important role to help explain the role of journalism, to help explain the values of journalism and why it’s vitally important to our society.”
Chacón offered a similar sentiment. “In this climate, there is a desperate need for voices of trust, of reason, of independence. The role of people like public editors or ombudsmen, at least for now, can help guide us as a society to try to get back to that midpoint.”
While ombudsmen can help to restore public credibility and trust in journalism, they are not the only remedy.
The former ombudsmen from the New York Times weigh in again.
“One of the big problems we have in journalism is trust,” Sullivan said. “(Having an ombudsman) is one of the things that news organizations can do to try to rebuild trust. It does not mean you’re going to make people happy, because you won’t, you can’t. But at least it would say, ‘We have someone, and this person is independent, and we leave them alone. They get to say what they think, and they’re going to represent you.’”
Hoyt agreed. “I do believe that it can make a difference. It’s not the answer, the sole answer, to media credibility. Having an independent voice that has the ability to look into things within a news organization, and then make an independent judgment about that to the public, can help build credibility.”
“Why do we have journalism? It’s to hold institutions accountable,” Jensen said. “Having an ombudsman, having a public editor is a way to say to the public, to your public that we’re also holding ourselves accountable. It’s a way of saying that we care about our credibility with you, the public, so much so that we’re going to put ourselves under the microscope internally and we’re going to fund this position.”
The ombudsman also offers a real person on the other end of those Twitter comments, emails and phone calls, Sullivan added.
“Having a public editor, an ombudsman, is a great way to say, ‘We’re listening, and we’re willing to change,’” she said. “If it’s done right, and you have the right person, it is likely to build trust. But those are two big ifs.”
But Gold said she doesn’t see a correlation between the ombudsman role and the level of public trust.
“I don’t know if an ombudsman adds to credibility. The honesty has to be between the editors and the reporters and the public. I’m still not positive credibility has anything to do with accuracy,” she said. “If you have an ombudsman or a neutral party whose job is just to (ensure) accuracy, that helps, but I don’t know if that adds to the credibility.”
But the views of the other seven ombudsmen were summed up well by Alexander.
“A truly independent ombudsman can help restore trust in two ways: by being honestly independently critical when the news organization strays from its own standards and by using opportunities to explain the process.”
The CJR experiment
If news organizations no longer see the value in funding ombudsmen, is it viable to have an external ombudsman? Several of the former ombudsmen said they were closely watching a project from the Columbia Journalism Review, but have reservations on whether it can be effective. The project sought to provide external public editors for major media organizations.
Kyle Pope, the editor of CJR, explained why they stepped in.
“The timing is exactly wrong for these places to sort of scale back on their public accountability and public transparency,” Pope said. “The media is under attack and there’s all kinds of conspiracy theories and misinformation flowing around how journalism happens. That’s exactly the wrong time to sort of pull back on your interfacing with the public.”
CJR hired four journalists and assigned these “public editors” to four mainstream media organizations:
- Gabriel Snyder, assigned to The New York Times
- Hamilton Nolan, assigned to The Washington Post (Ana Marie Cox first held this role)
- Maria Bustillos, assigned to MSNBC
- Ariana Pekary, assigned to CNN (Emily Tamkin first held this role)
Pope said the decision was made without any consultation with any of the four organizations, and none of the four “public editors” works within the walls of his or her assigned organization.
“We’re defending the tradition of something that has been eliminated. The whole point of this is that we’re trying to revive this position. We were trying to make a point. We think it’s bad that the public editor job has gone away,” Pope said. “One of the ways we tried to make that point was to call all these people ‘public editors.’ Now, we obviously realize that historically public editors had functioned inside these organizations. Again, all these places got rid of them.”
But is this really a public editor? The former ombudsmen aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think they’re in a position to be quite as effective as an internal ombudsman, because they’re seen as more external media critics,” Sullivan said. “Do they really have access to the complaints that are coming in? Not really.”
“It’s really another voice from outside news organizations. It doesn’t have an institutional presence within these news organizations, with the implied imperative that the organization has to respond to it,” Hoyt said.
Alexander added, “It’s nowhere close to the same as someone who has the backing of the top people in management saying, ‘You’re going to have to answer to the ombudsman.’”
Pope defended the effort and said the four news organizations have been mostly cooperative.
“If you read those columns, you’ll see that we quote their top brass and address the issues that we’re writing about.”
Lessenberry of The Blade said he supports the effort and the outsider concept.
“It’s probably better not to have an employee do it. Something like that (CJR model) would be a very good model,” he said. “You’d need to have some kind of overseer; you need to have something to make sure they’re fair. If they could get some sort of grant, if they extended it to media beyond the sort of famous legacy media.”
Sullivan summed up the pros and cons. “The argument for doing it is you really are independent. Your paycheck is not coming from that news organization. That’s an interesting argument. The downside is that when (news organizations) are paying you, they’ve got an investment in it, and there’s more of an ownership of it, therefore more of an inclination to be responsive.”
While he conceded the concept is not perfect, Pope maintained the ultimate goal for CJR is to get news organizations to restore their own ombudsmen again.
“If all these places told us tomorrow that we started to see the value of this, and we’re going to reinstate our own ombudsman, we would say ‘Great, job done, let’s move on.’”
At the time of these interviews, that was a goal amplified by Jensen at NPR. “I wish I weren’t the only full-time public editor at a major news organization left in the United States,” she said.
Jensen ended her tenure as public editor of NPR in April 2020. Poynter’s Kelly McBride is now public editor.
Conclusions and limitations
Ombudsmen came into vogue with the social responsibility movement ushered in as a result of the findings of the Hutchins Report, published in 1947. Along with it came the development of journalistic and ethical standards to increase professionalism in the media.
Since then, journalistic standards have evolved along with changes in society. The interviews in this study confirmed that ombudsmen, mostly used at large newspapers, vanished due mostly to financial pressures caused by declining circulation and ad revenue. The large institutions, like The New York Times, were the last to eliminate the position.
Most ombudsmen agreed that a modern interpretation of the role would require a greater public presence. The ombudsman cannot be a quiet, mostly internal role that publishes an occasional article in the newspaper. They envision the role as being more than an arbitrator between the public and the news organization.
They also believe ombudsmen need to be public educators, illuminating journalistic practices, ethics and editorial processes. The ombudsmen explained that educating the public about how journalism is done has taken on greater importance because of the Twitter factor, where social media comments and complaints come quickly and are often inaccurate or misguided.
They believe the ombudsman would need to be more visible on social media, offering suggestions for blogging, podcasts and conducting public forums.
But while the former ombudsmen call for the role to have greater public interaction, they said the position is much more than just a public feedback or public relations effort. They said the return of ombudsmen would also improve the public’s perception regarding media fairness, accuracy and trust.
The role of ombudsman, through its independence and autonomy, provides accountability both within news organizations and with the public. There have been dramatic changes in media since a study by J. Bernstein in 1986, but the result is the same: When news consumers know there’s an ombudsman, they have a greater level of confidence in the content.
Seven of the eight ombudsmen interviewed agreed a return of the position would help restore trust and credibility in the media. They are under no illusion that their role would dramatically reduce the 65% of the public who, in a recent Harris poll, said there is a lot of “fake news,” but the former ombudsmen do maintain the role can help news organizations make fewer mistakes and uphold high journalistic standards.
They all agree with Pope at CJR that, despite the ridicule the mainstream media receive via social media, it’s a bad time for newsrooms to retreat from their readers. Ombudsmen are needed more than ever to show the public that news organizations are willing to subject their reporting to an objective third party with real power to independently investigate and report back to the public. Both the news organization and the public benefit because the ombudsman builds trust. That willingness to show openness and to admit and correct mistakes would go a long way to assuring the public that the media are reporting in a responsible manner.
This public expectation of social responsibility is not lost on publishers, editors and reporters. While they strongly defend their First Amendment right to a free press, they recognize they cannot and should not be reckless.
Can they be defensive? Certainly. But more often, while protecting their independence, journalists understand the need to be accountable to the public.
At a time of such uncertainty and confusion in the consumption of news, ombudsmen can help differentiate and educate the public. They can help sort the good from the bad, the real from the fake.
A thriving democracy requires an informed public. The ombudsman was born out of this sense of social responsibility. News organizations should not only restore the position of ombudsman but also broaden it.
The former ombudsmen all maintain the role is vital to a healthy media. But would the public agree, or are the political views of Americans so polarized now that they would corrupt any effort to improve media trust?
Restoring ombudsmen will not by itself solve all that ails the mainstream media, but it would be a start.